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Ingber ’15: Constructive Irreverence

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Thursday, January 24, 2013

Seeing the inauguration of a new university president is thrilling. We are lucky our time at Brown overlaps with the end of one president’s tenure and the beginning of another’s. But it is not just the inauguration ceremony that intrigues me. Watching a new leader come into the Brown community and navigate the landscape is inspiring. As current students, we have an incredibly unique opportunity to help President Christina Paxson change Brown for the better.

We must start by allowing Paxson to create her own image, leadership style and persona. To do this, the student body must not compare her to former president Ruth Simmons. Simmons, with her efforts to integrate the campus and her grandmotherly hugs, had an incredible impact on students. Perhaps Paxson will not have the same mystical aura surrounding her that her predecessor did, but we must realize that she will be trying to lace up her own boots, not trying to fill Simmons’ shoes.

So how should she do this? That is not for us to decide. But I will use this limited space to draw from Paxson’s convocation speech and give my take on how some of the goals outlined should be accomplished.

Paxson comically drew on her background in economics to discuss the academic definition of her field, which addresses the allocation of scarce resources. This is relevant to Brown — our endowment is exceptionally low compared to other Ivy League universities. The University often struggles to fund all the ventures that students want to pursue. So where should our limited resources go? While academics serve as the backbone of Brown’s intellectual uniqueness, the University’s true individuality lies in its highly engaged student body. I urge Paxson to allocate a larger amount of university resources to student activities on campus.

Many Brown students will argue that what sets us apart from similar schools is the devotion students have to extracurricular activities. It is outside the classroom where Brown students run internationally acclaimed conferences such as A Better World by Design and build Formula One racecars. The inspiration and future success of our students often comes from the myriad of extracurricular activities available to us, yet the Undergraduate Council of Students and Undergraduate Finance Board have trouble funding it all. We should not let money be the obstacle to the next great student innovation or social endeavor. I wholeheartedly acknowledge that there are financial restraints in university budgets, but I would like to stress how fundamental student groups are in creating the dynamic Brown community.

In her speech, Paxson also addressed the value of research. Debates rage about the importance of various research endeavors at universities across the country, and Brown is no exception. It is no small feat that a Brown professor worked on the team that discovered the Higgs boson. But I hope Paxson will strongly emphasize research in the humanities and social sciences in addition to research in the life and physical sciences. Many think research implies a lab coat and test tubes, but there is so much relevance — sometimes hidden — to seemingly frivolous topics in other domains. This imperative should translate into more undergraduate research and fellowships in overlooked fields. For example, why is it that an overwhelming amount of Undergraduate Teaching and Research Awards go to science-related projects? Encouraging undergraduate research in the fields of economics, history, anthropology and political science will widen the reach of exceptional Brown students and also diversify the career paths graduates will choose.

My final and perhaps most lofty challenge to Paxson comes from her quotation about free speech from Brown’s charter. I often feel that free speech is curtailed on campus, but not by any statute or rule. Rather, certain individuals — from those defending investment banks to supporters of the war in Iraq — are often “crowded out” of the campus conversation. We must fight this.

One should not be labeled “racist” for questioning the role of the Third World Center or “right-wing” for supporting a military strike on Iran. So how do we do this? We should strive for balance among professors as well as those who speak at University-sponsored lectures. We should create a culture of tolerance and understanding, not just one of protest and counter-protest. Some might question the role the president has in this process, but I feel that as a seasoned scholar and brilliant academic, Paxson can set a tone that builds up the deliberative capacities of certain groups as opposed to shutting them down.

I am excited for the next three years. Thus far, Paxson has seemed accessible, charming and, most importantly, willing to immerse herself in Brown’s culture before imposing her own mandates. As a student body, we have not only the opportunity but the responsibility to foster the Brown way, something Paxson so aptly described as “constructive irreverence.”

 

 

Zach Ingber ’15 is getting good vibes from Paxson’s time on campus so far. He can be reached at zachary_ingber@brown.edu.

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One Comment

  1. Zachy, Did Ruth hold the camel for you?

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